After high school, Sid arrives in New York City hoping to move into a Lower East Side squat. When she finds the buildings full of cliques, she squats an abandoned Brooklyn bakery, grows up a bit, and manages to create community.
One of author Stacy Wakefield’s previous credits is Not for Rent, a collection of interviews with European squatters. Wakefield puts her knowledge of activist punk culture to great use in The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory, setting the story against a backdrop of Born Against patches and ABC No Rio matinees, building tension through contentious house meetings and showing how the scene’s realities can put idealism to the test. Endearing, naive Sid follows the tidy “Ditches friends for cool kids, realizes cool kids aren’t her friends, appreciates true friends” plot with enthusiasm.
Sunshine Crust succeeds most in the big picture, showing mid-’90s New York as it begins to gentrify. The city is a major character, and the reader can feel the cold through broken windows and see golden sunsets from local basketball courts. Plus, it’s fun to consider the changes that the squatters are unwittingly setting in motion. In 2015, how much would it cost to rent a luxury apartment in Sid’s old squat? Does the drug front bodega on Lorimer St. sell craft beer now?
While Sunshine Crust soundly evokes a city and a scene, it isn’t as strong on a character level, and it can be hard to discern between the minor players. This may serve the novel’s point. As squatmate and romantic interest Mitch points out, “They’re not squatters, they’re scenesters.” Mitch is well-drawn as the founder of the Brooklyn squat whose ethics can make him aloof and judgmental. As is Lorenzo, the comically self-absorbed Mexican punk legend who tries to cheer up a sick Sid with a copy of his band’s new demo.
During an argument over messy houseguests, Lorenzo insults Sid’s weight. While Sunshine Crust is the perfect place to criticize the punk scene’s sexism, the novel’s Latin-American characters shoulder all of the blame. Furthering the “macho Latino” stereotype, squatmate Eddie only exists to leer and make sexually suggestive comments. Meanwhile, when Sid begins working on a new space on Lorimer St., one of her main concerns is the gangs of Latino teenagers looking for trouble near Broadway.
The punks’ privilege is dealt with on Lorimer St., where they’re reminded that squatters only succeed when they get along with their neighbors, and, in this case, the neighbors are drug dealers and junkies. It’s a much-needed bit of self-awareness for the collection of dreamers in Sunshine Crustand, like most of this novel, it will inspire a knowing smile from anyone who’s survived the flakey roommates, unwanted houseguests and self-righteous slobs that fill out so many group living situations. –Chris Terry (Akashic Books, 232 Third St., Suite A115, Brooklyn, NY 11215, akashicbooks.com)